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Drewett's towering legacy on display in Melbourne

Photo: Feng Li/Getty Images

Brad Drewett has been part of the ATP for more than 30 years, first as a player, then as an ATP player council member and ATP board member.

They had yet to complete a match this second day of the Australian Open when tragic news broke. For a day, anyway, Serena Williams' ankle and Caroline Wozniacki's comeback and Roger Federer's form were seemed something less than relevant. Brad Drewett, the well-liked and well-regarded chairman of the ATP, disclosed that he suffers from ALS -- Lou Gehrig's Disease -- and will be resigning his post.

"I hold the ATP very close to my heart," Drewett, 54, said in a statement, "and it's with sadness that I make the decision to enter this transition period due to my ill-health."

For all the infighting and occasional craziness, the tennis community is, at its essence, just that: a community. So not surprisingly the members were quick to offer solicitude and support. Brad's "dedication and service to the sport over the years has been truly admirable and he has been a central figure in helping to grow the ATP product across the globe," said Roger Federer. "Our thoughts are with him and his family during this difficult time."

The WTA offered: "We know he will fight this terrible disease every step of the way, and have our full support for whatever he needs." Players and agents and coaches took to social media.

You'd expect nothing less, especially in this case. A former player, Drewett made the crossover to management not long after his retirement. Drewett has spent most of his life, 30-plus years, with the ATP, in every capacity imaginable. The next person to malign him, will be the first.

And yet, the most eloquent tribute to Drewett wasn't written or spoken; it was playing out on the grounds.

Years ago -- before Yao Ming, before economies revved up, before even Internet technology greased the skids of globalization -- Drewett realized the potential of the Asian market, China in particular. Based in Australia, he oversaw the ATP's Middle East, Asia and Pacific regions and spread the gospel of the sport from Dubai to Shanghai to Mumbai. He brought the year-end Masters Cup to Shanghai, and convinced the government to build a tennis center capable of hosting a major. There were sponsorships, and funding agreements and television deals. At a time when other sports marketers are still trying to figure how to penetrate the Asian market, tennis, thanks to Drewett, got there fashionably early.

"He's well-respected -- loved, really -- in China," says Bendou Zhang of China's Titan newspaper, one of an unprecedented number of Asian journalist covering the 2013 Australian Open. "Fans know all about him."

It was somehow fitting that hours after Tuesday's announcement, Di Wu took the court, the first Chinese male every to play in the main singles draw of a Major in the Open Era. This, as four Chinese players represented China in the women's draw, including Li Na, a bona fide star and potential Hall of Fame player. The draw is also flush with others from Taipei and Thailand and India even Kazakhstan, countries with little tennis profile until recently.

And it's not just the field. Hisense, the Chinese electronics company that's paid to have its name slathered on the show court here? The Kia sponsorship? The Asian media contingent? Directly or indirectly, that's Brad Drewett's handiwork. That's his towering legacy.

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